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Roll Call

‘Groundhog Day’ May Be Coming to the Capitol

Policymakers and the people who are paid to follow them will be forgiven if they feel like they’ve been dropped into the movie “Groundhog Day” over the next several weeks: The legislative agenda of early 2010 is probably going to look a lot like the legislative agenda of 2009.

But there’s a new imperative this time, particularly for Democrats who run the show: With the 2010 elections looming, they’ve got to do something quickly to create jobs — all the while showing that they’re serious about confronting ballooning government expenditures.

Those goals, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged in a recent conversation with reporters, “appear to be, in some respects, contradictory.”

But if that reality isn’t daunting enough, Congress and President Barack Obama will in 2010 still have to deal with the spillover from 2009. With the health care reform debate still far from being resolved, most other significant legislation has essentially stalled in the Senate. And House Members are waiting for Senators to act on a raft of other bills that the House passed earlier this year.

So the top legislative fights of 2009 are inevitably going to continue into 2010: Health care. Climate change. Appropriations measures. Transportation reauthorization. Financial regulation. War and peace.

It’s all weighty stuff. Not much of it — depending on your point of view — can really be put off for very long.

But how do Members tackle these issues while at the same time moving the economy to the forefront? Can the leaders of the two parties, who are already focused laser-like on the November elections, work together to accomplish anything in 2010? And does anyone have the stomach to confront other highly charged issues that Obama promised to get to when the time was right, like immigration reform and a labor rights bill? Some of the Democrats’ key allies will scream loudly if nothing is done on those two fronts next year — and inaction may have political consequences.

Without doing very much since Obama took office, Republicans — so down in the dumps just a few months ago — have seen their fortunes improve. So there isn’t much incentive for them to cooperate with the Democratic majority.

Democrats continue to shout that they inherited a mess — a potent and persuasive argument in 2006 and 2008, but one that most voters won’t buy next year, even if some of them agree that there’s truth in the statement. Democrats now own the lousy economy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and global warming and the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. And Republicans will be quick to remind voters that the Democrats’ proposed solutions to these problems have produced few tangible results, other than a mushrooming federal deficit.

“Right now middle-class voters are looking at the Obama-Pelosi agenda and scratching their heads,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The narrative developing is one that leaves voters wondering whether Democrats are more interested in creating government than creating jobs.”

In the face of that full-throated criticism, Democrats are trying to claim small victories, along with promises of more good news to come.

“The mission is to create high-quality private-sector jobs,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Joint Economic Committee, said at a hearing late last week. “Congress has already done a great deal of work on this front. The $700 billion Recovery Act included a tax cut for 95 percent of American families and created jobs while investing in clean energy technologies, infrastructure and education — and we see those investments paying off in the steadily improving labor market figures.”

But Hoyer conceded that “America’s got a lot of angst, a lot of anger and a lot of fear,” and that good news has been hard for voters to truly measure.

“We’ve made substantial progress,” he said. “But progress is not success.”

So look for Democrats to begin working on a series of job-creation proposals in the days and weeks ahead — and for Republicans to pounce when they can. One Obama idea last week, to tap the Troubled Asset Relief Program for job development and not just to aid ailing financial institutions, got the full GOP treatment.

“For a program that the president claimed [last week] is so unloved, my Democratic colleagues sure love to abuse it,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), ranking member of the Budget Committee. “They love to claim phony savings from TARP to justify more deficit spending. They love to tap the program to fund government interventions that have nothing to do with the financial system, such as the auto bailout. And they love the idea of using TARP as a piggy bank for more and more federal handouts.”

If that’s a harbinger of things to come, 2010 isn’t going to be very pretty — on Capitol Hill or in the political trenches. One party will emerge victorious next November, while the wreckage from the year’s legislative battles are still smoldering.

Whether the American people will consider themselves winners is another thing entirely.

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